So, the Calgary Hitmen beat the Kootenay Ice last night, completing their seven-game series with a rather one-sided 6-2 victory at the Saddledome.
Functionally-speaking, it was the competition of a de facto Best of Nine series, as the Hitmen and Ice played a home-and-home series to end the regular season as well.
One of the crucial aspects of the series? The matching by Calgary Hitmen coach Mark French of behemoth defenseman (and Calgary Flames prospect) Keegan Kanzig against 2014 second overall draft pick Sam Reinhart.
One year ago, the Calgary Hitmen hit a roadblock on their run to a WHL Championship. That roadblock? Sam Reinhart. The Hitmen got beaten by the Ice in six games, and Reinhart – en route to being the WHL’s highest pick in years – had 17 points. In six games.
Reinhart’s skillset is well-documented. He’s fast. He’s smart with the puck. He’s a pretty slick passer. The only thing he’s not is big. He’s 6’1″, 190 pounds. But last season, the Hitmen didn’t have (a) a big-ass body to throw at him, or (b) a coach that was willing to throw a body at him.
Enter Keegan Kanzig.
Now, I only watched the first and seventh games of the series live, but this was what I was told about the first six games: Kanzig was making life hell for Reinhart in Calgary, to the point where the Ice were doing whatever they could at home to avoid that match-up.
Wanting to see how Kanzig was performing at this very specific job, I tracked every Kanzig shift. He played a power-play shift late in the game – he’s been operating at the screening guy because he’s gigantic – and a couple penalty kills. Other than that, he’s the basic template: whoever was next up in the rotation went on normally, unless Sam Reinhart (and occasionally Luke Philip) were on, in which case Kanzig was thrown back out. This resulted in a lot of different partners for Kanzig:
- 9 shifts with Colby Harmsworth
- 8 shifts with Michael Zipp
- 6 shifts with Ben Thomas
- 3 shifts with Travis Sanheim
After the game, Kanzig explained that he didn’t really focus all that much on who he was playing with – he ended up playing both the left and right side – or who was against, but merely playing his style of game. He had a few big hits in the Calgary zone and was pretty effective at using his freakishly-long reach for poke-checks. There was a couple that led to scoring chances going the other way for the Hitmen. But mostly he closed the gaps between him and the puck carrier quickly and chipped the puck out, which very rarely involved much puck-handling. In the press box, we were joking that he was “Glass and Out” Kanzig.
All-told, in a 6-2 win, Kanzig was a +3 – he was on the ice for four of five even-strength Hitmen goals and Jaedon Descheneau’s goal late in the game when the Hitmen got a little cute with their defensive play due to their big lead. And to be honest, Descheneau was full marks on that goal – he motored into the slot and just leaned into one. The other Kootenay goal was scored by Sam Reinhart on a tip-in, but it’s worth noting that it was in the second period when Kootenay had the short change into the offensive zone from their bench, and that Keegan Kanzig hadn’t gotten onto the ice yet because of that situation.
Kanzig definitely isn’t a perfect ice hockey player, but he was pretty effective in his role during the series. When I spoke with Hitmen coach Mark French prior to Game 7, he was praising Kanzig’s determination and called him a “heavy player.” This will be unpopular amongst some, but two comparisons that Kanzig liked we when chatted were Matt Greene and Deryk Engelland – they’re both bottom-pairing NHLers, mind you, but they play meat-and-potatoes, physical games. And they’re both NHLers, and that’s something that Kanzig obviously wants to be.
I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that the Hitmen are moving onto the next round of the playoffs because of Keegan Kanzig. Kanzig was used quite effectively by Mark French, but Kanzig himself didn’t really do anything spectacular and he didn’t contribute a ton of offense, he merely negated some of Kootenay’s. I also don’t want to say that Sam Reinhart was ineffective in Game 7 because of the Kanzig match-up all series; all I know is that Reinhart wore Kanzig like a big sweater for the four games in Calgary but he still put up points during those games. But Kootenay did everything they could to avoid the Reinhart/Kanzig match-up during the games in Cranbrook, and Reinhart seemed worn out in Game 7.
This type of match-up can probably give you a bit of an indication as to what the Flames (and Hitmen) probably see Kanzig’s value and deployment options as. He likely will be used in a similar shut-down role in Stockton next season.
The Hitmen begin their second round series against the Medicine Hat Tigers on Friday.